Biden Team Sees Narrow Window for Deal on Cease-Fire and Hostages in Gaza

President Biden and his national security team see a narrow window to finally seal an agreement that would at least temporarily halt the war in Gaza and possibly end it for good even as they deflect pressure from college campus protests to abandon Israel in its fight against Hamas.

Several factors converging at once have renewed the administration’s hopes that it can break through the stalemate in the next week or two. Mr. Biden’s team wants to capitalize on the successful defense of Israel from Iranian attack, rising public pressure in Israel to free the hostages and Saudi eagerness for a new diplomatic and security initiative.

The window may be short. The president’s advisers are pressing for a cease-fire deal before Israel can begin its long-threatened assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, an operation with the potential for many civilian casualties that could thwart any short-term chances of peace. But administration officials have gone down this road before over the last several months, repeatedly expressing optimism only to see the chances for a deal collapse.

The administration is testing its proposition with a renewed push in the region. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, where he promoted a new “extraordinarily generous” offer by Israel, which signaled that it is now willing to accept the release of fewer hostages in the first stage of an agreement, 33 instead of 40.

Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, which appears set to host a new round of talks in Cairo starting Tuesday, said he was “hopeful” about the latest cease-fire proposal, saying it “has taken into account the positions of both sides.”

Mr. Blinken’s Saudi hosts are eager to finalize a separate deal that would include a security agreement with the United States and civilian nuclear assistance as well as diplomatic recognition of Israel, which diplomats believe could be a transformative moment for a region that long ostracized the Jewish state. As part of that deal, however, the Saudis insist that Israel commit to a concrete plan for an eventual Palestinian state within a certain deadline, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has adamantly rejected so far.

Eyeing the political calendar in Washington, the Saudis want to move in the next couple of weeks in hopes of generating bipartisan support in the Senate before the November election, in which former President Donald J. Trump could reclaim his office. If Mr. Trump is in the White House, the chances of Democrats in the Senate voting for a deal with Saudi Arabia could vanish, according to officials and analysts.

But the Saudis could hardly proceed if Israel is mounting a major assault on Rafah, adding extra impetus to the cease-fire talks. Mr. Biden followed up a Sunday call with Mr. Netanyahu with calls on Monday to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, whose governments have served as intermediaries with Hamas in the talks.

“The Israelis seem to be softening their posture, and the Saudis seem to have put their offer of normalization on the table, and Hamas is sounding more positive,” said Martin S. Indyk, a two-time ambassador to Israel and former special Middle East peace envoy. “So it’s looking better than it has for several weeks.”

The wild card remains Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader living in hiding in Gaza, who has blocked a deal for a cease-fire and hostages so far. The Americans and Israelis are not in direct contact with Mr. Sinwar and are relying on the Qataris and Egyptians to communicate with Hamas leaders outside Gaza who then communicate with Mr. Sinwar, officials said, complicating their ability to analyze his intentions.

“If Sinwar is ready for a deal, it will happen,” said Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East negotiator now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I suspect the administration believes if Israel does Rafah, nothing will be possible. The problem is if Sinwar has hostages, they are still a card he sees himself holding” and he may “choose to play” it.

American officials continued to ratchet up the pressure on Hamas on Monday. “The only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a cease-fire is Hamas,” Mr. Blinken said in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

In Washington, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said that “in recent days there has been new progress in talks and currently the onus is indeed on Hamas. There is a deal on the table and they need to take it.”

As if the diplomatic Rubik’s Cube were not intricate enough, though, a new wrinkle in recent days has threatened to further complicate the American efforts. Israeli officials are worried that the International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants for senior government officials stemming from the conduct of the war in Gaza.

The White House rejected any move to do that. “We do not support it,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “We don’t believe that they have the jurisdiction.”

Another looming deadline comes May 8 when the administration is required to certify to Congress whether Israel is complying with American and international law in its use of U.S.-provided arms. Reports in recent days by Reuters and Politico have indicated that lawyers inside the U.S. government are skeptical, at least, that such a certification could be made.

The intensifying diplomacy comes as American college campuses have erupted in anger over the war in Gaza and Mr. Biden is dogged during his travels by protesters accusing him of supporting genocide. The president has expressed support for the free speech of peaceful protesters while condemning antisemitism against Jewish students, who in some cases have been targeted.

While Mr. Biden’s campaign strategists in Wilmington, Del., worry about the implications of discontent on the political left among young voters he needs to win re-election, his national security aides try to tune out the noise to find the right combination of moves that they think will halt the war temporarily and, they hope, even permanently.

“Clearly the president feels a sense of urgency,” said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And so do some of his partners overseas. Mr. Cook just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, where he said he found leaders eager to finalize their deal with the United States. “The Saudis were very up front,” he said. “This is make or break, this is the moment.”

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